LOS ANGELES — The playoffs are a game of chess. Teams are constantly adjusting, and for every move, there’s a counter.
Heading into Game 3, the Clippers’ primary objective on offense was to get Blake Griffin more touches facing the basket and on the move. Though he struggled in Games 1 and 2 — in large part because of the tough, physical post-defense of Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams — Doc Rivers diagnosed the problem after breaking down film.
"His advantage in this series is not going to be power," Rivers said before the game. "His advantage in the Golden State series was being more powerful. His advantage in this series will be his speed."
The plan worked, as Griffin was more involved Friday night, scoring 34 points on 13-of-22 shooting. The Clippers offense returned to normalcy — Chris Paul also paced the way with 21 points and 16 assists (0 turnovers) — and the Thunder had no way of stopping it.
Yet while Los Angeles made the necessary adjustments offensively, their defensive adjustments didn’t work as well, and the same problems persisted. They messed up on basic defensive principles; they couldn’t protect the rim, contain the pick-and-roll or rotate to weak-side shooters.
They were slow to recover after helping on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s drives, which led to easy baskets and 55.7 percent shooting for Oklahoma City. Durant was otherworldly again, dropping 36 points on just 24 shots, and sealing the game’s fate with a 22-footer with 1:23 remaining.
"I got to do a better job of making sure we’re in a better spot…They got everything. They got threes, layups, key second shots. Down the stretch, they made every big play. Every shot they needed went in," Rivers said.
With the loss, the Clippers dropped to 35-1 this season when leading at Staples Center heading into the fourth. Now, they face a pivotal game on Sunday, as if the Thunder go back to Oklahoma City up 3-1, the series will be checkmate.
Here are five takeaways from Game 3:
There’s no stopping him
There’s no sugarcoating it: Durant has done whatever he’s wanted this series. Regardless of the Clippers’ defensive game plan, he’s found ways to break through seams in the defense, find spot-up shooters and, if all else fails, simply rise up above his defender and shoot over the top. It’s one thing to make Durant work for his points, and it’s another for him to get easy buckets. Thus far, it’s been the latter. As long as that’s the case, it’ll be tough for the Clippers to win more than two games.
The other guys step up
Durant and Westbrook are going to combine for 50 to 70 points each game, but the key to the Thunder’s offense is the supporting cast. When they’re making their shots, cutting behind the defense for layups and crashing the offensive glass, the Clippers can’t load up on the All-Star duo and ignore them. Serge Ibaka (20 points), Caron Butler (14) and Reggie Jackson (14) each took turns burning L.A.’s defensive rotations with open jumpers and drives to the rim, and that’ll be a concern in Game 4.
Blake bounces back
After Friday’s loss to Oklahoma City, Game 4 on Sunday isn’t technically a must-win, but for the Clippers it is. READ MORE
One of the silver linings tonight was Griffin muscling his way to the rim and rendering the Thunder’s big men ineffective. Ibaka has defended Griffin well this season, but he doesn’t have the speed or strength to contain Griffin off the dribble. The possessions in which Griffin stalled and was indecisive were few and far between, which is also encouraging. "We got him in the right spots tonight," Rivers said. "I thought whenever he faced an attack, it’s very difficult to guard him."
Going cold at the wrong time
After an impressive shooting performance in Game 1, the Clippers have cooled off considerably. They’ve been missing a lot of wide open shots, in particular. Tonight they went 15 of 34 on uncontested jumpers (44.1 percent), according to NBA.com/Stats. For comparison’s sake, the Thunder were 18 of 32 (56.3 percent). The volume of open shots is also a steep drop-off from Games 1 (58 attempts) and 2 (50 attempts). It’s simple: if you miss open shots, you’re probably going to lose.
One of the best kept secrets in the league is that the Thunder are basically unbeatable when Kevin Durant slides over to power forward and they play small. In the fourth, OKC primarily went with Durant at the 4 and Ibaka at the 5, and the results were remarkable. They outscored the Clippers by 10, out-rebounded them by five, and outshot them 61.1 percent to 38.5 percent. L.A. had no answer, despite boasting the bigger lineup that was, in theory, better defensively. It’s time to make some adjustments.